February 24, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Learning about the plight of Christians in the Holy Land

John F. Fink(Second in a series)

Last week, I started to tell you about a trip I took back in 1982 when I led a group of 26 American Catholic journalists on a fact-finding trip to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. Last week’s column was about our meetings in Jordan.

From Jordan, we went to Israel. Our first meetings in Jerusalem were with Archimandrite Lotfi Laham, the Greek Catholic Melkite archbishop, and then Archbishop William Carew, the apostolic delegate to Israel, Jordan and Cyprus. Later, we met with Latin Rite Patriarch James Beltritti.

When we were introduced, both Archbishop Carew and Patriarch Beltritti said, “I saw you on Jordanian television.” We would hear it again from Jewish officials. Amman and Jerusalem are only 45 miles apart, and it became obvious that both Jews and Arabs in Israel watched Jordanian TV.

All three prelates spoke about the real ecumenism that exists in the Holy Land among the Christians. They agreed that the biggest task of the Church—then as well as now—is to try to halt the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. Young people quite naturally want to go where they can have a better life—in the United States, Canada, Australia or South America.

The next day, our group met with Elias Freij, the Christian Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem at the time. Freij showed us on a map how the Israeli government was annexing land in the West Bank to build Jewish settlements. He said that he would be glad to have Israel annex the West Bank if the Arabs would then be given full citizenship, but Israel could not do that because the Arabs would then control the government.

He told us that Israel was not interested in peace, only in the land. He said that Israel was trying to drive out the Palestinians, but “Why should I leave Bethlehem to go to Jordan? I was born here and my family has lived here for 50 years.”

While still in Bethlehem, we visited Bethlehem University, one of the results of Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land in 1964. He asked the Christian Brothers to found a university to train Palestinians so they would not have to leave the Holy Land in order to have a profession. Through the years since then, I learned more about the university and have written about it.

While we were there in 1982, we not only had a tour of the university, but an outstanding lunch prepared by the hotel management course students. In thanking them for the lunch, I said that apparently we were their final examination and, if so, they all deserved an A+.

From Bethlehem University, we went to Tantur. After Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land in 1964, he asked Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh to establish an ecumenical center in the Holy Land. He did, and the University of Notre Dame continues to operate it. This is where I studied for three months in 1997 after my retirement as editor of The Criterion.

Next week: Meetings with Jewish officials.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It Must Be More Than a Human Institution.)

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